We need authoritarian-proof higher education models

Following the military coup, Burmese faculty and students fear annihilation of a budding modern higher education system, says Kyaw Moe Tun

September 6, 2021
Police with riot shields illustrating the threat to higher education in Myanmar
Source: iStock

At dawn on 1 February, 2020, I woke up to the most horrifying alert on my phone. A friend frantically reported that a military coup had taken place overnight.

Wi-fi was down and no mobile data were available, so I called close friends and their relatives to find out more. I learned that my friend Bo Bo Nge, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Myanmar, had been detained, along with many other officials associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration. A few hours later, cell phone lines were cut off.

As president of the Parami Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences in downtown Yangon, I started to worry about what this would mean for the institution and our students and alumni, who were focused on building a country they could be proud of after six decades of isolation. I drove an hour north, to the 34 acres (14 hectares) of land we had acquired for the residential campus of Parami University, envisioned as Myanmar's first private, not-for-profit liberal arts and sciences institution.

The roads were mostly empty. But I saw enough military trucks and soldiers to be convinced that the military had Myanmar in its iron grip once again. For the first time in five years, I felt as if Big Brother was watching my every move. Our dream to establish Parami University was being swallowed up in a political nightmare.

Three or four generations of Myanmar youth have been deprived of quality education by successive military regimes since 1962. The decade following the surprising establishment of a military-led reformist government in 2011 offered an opportunity to young people to re-imagine a unified national identity, respecting the many cultures and languages among Myanmar’s 55 million population.

The pace of education reform was unexpected and inspiring. However, it was also hard fought and imperfect. There were never enough competent people to implement the new policies. It was common for administrators and professors at public universities to be assigned to execute new programmes by the National Education Policy Commission (NEPC) with no additional support or compensation. Furthermore, all the members of the NEPC’s affiliated committees were active or retired civil servants, whose modus operandi was to preserve the status quo. This led to a bureaucratic paralysis that even the most reform-minded administrators and faculty found difficult to outmanoeuvre.

To assist the efforts of reformers in the parliament, I established the Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) in 2018, as an affiliate of Parami, to produce evidence-based policy briefs. At the politicians’ suggestion, we brought in international experts to advise on the creation of university councils and accreditation frameworks.

The past two years saw significant progress in regulating the private higher education sector, too, which is still rife with for-profit schemes. At the suggestion of the minister of education and the chair of the NEPC, I invited private higher education institutions – not-for-profit and for-profit – to unite under a single umbrella organisation to coordinate better reforms; 39 of them founded the Private Higher Education Institutions Association (PHEIA) in 2019, of which I was elected inaugural president. Then, in late 2019, the NEPC established a committee to regulate and register such institutions. Following site visits, initial registration was granted to 12.

Parami was among them. We were also on track to be granted charitable status. Everything was falling into place for us to welcome the first Parami University students next autumn, after operating the pilot institute downtown for more than four years.

A few days after the coup, the voices of protesting students and teachers from government universities broke through the wall of silence. Waves of civil servants, mainly university professors, doctors and nurses, went on strike, launching a widespread civil disobedience movement. Students defied military orders to attend classes.

But many have suffered for it. Under the name of the State Administration Council (SAC), the military has detained, tortured and killed hundreds of students and others involved in the protests. The SAC knows from long experience that students, teachers, intellectuals and artists pose the biggest threats to authoritarian rule.  

The SAC is now suspending or reversing the higher education reforms. The autonomy promised to flagship universities, including Yangon and Mandalay, has been retracted. Steps towards establishing governing councils have been dropped. Accreditation frameworks developed by the National Accreditation and Quality Assurance Committee (NAQAC) have been scrapped.

Burmese faculty and students are rapidly losing hope. At best, they anticipate stagnation; at worst, they fear total annihilation of a budding modern higher education system.

Parami's purpose in this new context is clear: to empower youth from every ethnic group to create a society that cherishes inclusivity and diversity. To that end, we are deploying state-of-the-art technologies to expand access to our courses to thousands of students. In the coming months, we plan to launch a semester-long Mooc (massive open online course) in the Burmese language, which will nurture critical thinking through discussion of both Eastern and Western philosophy and reflection on contemporary regional and global issues.

Students suffering under authoritarian regimes thirst for a genuine education that promotes critical thinking and liberal habits of mind. New models of delivery that can circumvent such states’ monopolisation of degree-granting authority must emerge to quench this thirst. I make a humble call for a global conversation on what these models should look like – because our students deserve better. 

Kyaw Moe Tun is president of Parami Institute, a private non-profit liberal arts and sciences institution in Yangon, Myanmar.

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